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Battle Royale

The BJP takes on mighty Mamata Banerjee as the most-watched state elections kickstart in Bengal

Battle Royale
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It's the mother of all elections. No other state poll has garnered as much interest and electioneering as the Bengal elections. And there is no topic that is remaining untouched in this political scuffle. From 'Jai Shree Ram' and 'Joy Ma Durga' to the 'outsider-insider' debate, the election season in Bengal is witnessing a battle like no other. TMC fights to retain its stranglehold on the state for the third term while the BJP looks to reap the benefits of its most fortuitous success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

But it's a well-known fact that people vote differently in state polls versus general elections. It also doesn't harm that Bengal has been consistently performing better than the national average in the social indices; a matter of pride for the state government. While more industry could have been attracted to the state, the country as a whole has been facing torrid times economically, providing a perfectly acceptable explanation to the state as well.

The challenge before the BJP has been to widen the narrow chasm of religious divide within the otherwise peaceful state. In recent years, they have been successful in small measure to stoke communal sentiments and provoke the so-called neglected Hindu against its Muslim sop-ladled brethren. But to think that the fabulous success of the BJP in 2019 polls was due to the votes of peeved Hindus would be erroneous. It was also not anger against TMC matriarch Mamata Banerjee that resulted in BJP's wins; a closer look at the voting percentage showed that TMC had improved its voting percentage. The culprit indeed was the en masse migration of the Left vote to the Right that brought in many unexpected victories for the BJP. The Bengal elections will now prove if Mamata Banerjee has managed to wean away some of those crucial unhappy citizens from the BJP.

Her efforts have definitely not been wanting. Aided by political strategist, Prashant Kishor's clever digital and on-ground outreach, Mamata has been trying to bridge the gap between her and her voters. The 'Didi ke bolo' campaign was specifically designed to give a platform to the common man's grievances and then provide a swift resolution. The idea to do away with the middleman was a hit since there have been complaints of low-level corruption that had prevented the common man from accessing benefits due to him.

By the time elections dawned, Mamata had also ensured that there is largesse promised to everyone. If earlier Muslim 'maulvis' got stipends, now even Hindu priests would. Along with several globally acclaimed social programmes that encouraged female education, Mamata's schemes to protect the state's farmers through paddy procurement has also not gone unnoticed. Health insurance for all and food for Rs 5 in 'Maa' canteens in a Covid year, were also welcomed by the populace. In her latest election manifesto, Mamata has promised free ration at the doorstep and pension to widows and tribals. In comparison, the BJP has promised one job per family, implementation of the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) from day 1, and 33 per cent reservation for women in government jobs. Separately, there is also an anti-BJP campaign being run by members of the civil society who are vociferously protesting right-wing ideology from finding its feet in Bengal.

This will be the BJP's toughest state fight too as it goes into poll season without a face. Actor Mithun Chakraborty may be a well-known face and turncoat Subhendu Adhikari, a strong state leader, but neither can boast of Mamata Banerjee's popularity. As far as the people of Bengal are concerned, it's the BJP versus their own Didi. There is no emotive factor binding them to the saffron party though the lure and role of money in these elections shouldn't be underplayed. But Bengal's people are ruled by emotions and the picture of Mamata in a wheelchair would have tugged many a heartstring. By all accounts, at least in these elections, toppling Mamata may not be within kissing distance for the BJP. There's a lot riding on this election too — Mamata's fortunes, Prashant Kishor's reputation, Bengal's innate culture. The only thing that could affect results would be the eight arduous phases of voting; the longest ever that the state has witnessed; stretched even more than the times when Naxals were active in parts of the state. Even as I write, the viral song that has become the TMC's anthem, 'Khela Hobe', is playing on 'para' (locality) loudspeakers in a loop. All eyes will stay glued to Bengal till May 2.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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